Relax into better health

Last Thursday, I was privileged to hear Dr. Herbert Benson, a leader in the field of mind-body medicine, give the keynote address kicking off Mind-Body Week D.C. Although he reiterated much of the material found in his many books and papers, it was still a treat for me to hear him discuss it.

Dr. Benson started his research over 40 years ago as a young medical doctor. At a time when doing research into the connection between mind and body, and spirituality and healing, could be a sure-fire career-ender, he was brave enough to pursue it. In doing so, he defined the effect known as the “relaxation response” and conducted study after study showing how it could be evoked, and what its benefits are.

Benson believes that medical care should consist of what he calls the “3-legged stool”, where the three legs are self-care, medications and procedures. In order for us to have optimal wellness, all three legs must be utilized as needed. His life’s work has been to show how our ability to use the first leg, to heal ourselves, is real and powerful.

In his ground-breaking book, The Relaxation Response, first published in 1975, Benson explained how the relaxation response could counteract the effects of the stress (or “fight or flight”) response. In fact, the relaxation response is the direct opposite of the stress response. In essence, we cannot be stressed and relaxed at the same time.

Benson also demystified meditation for people. While his initial research started with transcendental meditation, he demonstrated how the relaxation response could be achieved using some basic elements of T.M., without needing a mantra or a spiritual guru. Anyone can access it without cost or special equipment. Here are the steps he recommends:

  • Choose a word or phrase on which to focus (some examples are words such as love, peace, or one; or words with religious meaning).
  • Sit quietly in a comfortable position that you can maintain for some time.
  • Close your eyes and relax your muscles.
  • Breathe slowly and naturally, repeating your focus word as you exhale.
  • Maintain a passive, non-judging attitude. If your mind wanders, keep coming back to your breath and your word.
  • Continue in this manner for 10-20 minutes (beginners should try for 5 minutes at a time).

Using mental focusing techniques to bring about relaxation is not radical now as it was in 1975. But it is still not fully a part of Western medicine. Integrative medicine centers exist at many hospitals, but it often seems that they function alongside, rather than as full partners with the traditional departments. That’s too bad, because over the years, Herbert Benson and others have developed a body of research that shows that regularly practicing relaxation:

  • Can lead to lower blood pressure and lower heart rate
  • Reduces metabolism and breathing rate
  • Reduces the harmful effects of stress
  • Leads to changes on the genetic level in areas that control inflammation, aging, and insulin use

By calling upon our ability to relax, we can reduce the physical symptoms of stress. We also have the potential to reduce our use of the health care system since a majority of doctor visits are for stress-related complaints. We can take more control of our health.

Deepak Chopra has said “Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day”. When we regularly experience that quiet, it can also open a mental door that allows us to be receptive to ideas. In that way, a regular relaxation practice can also help us learn, be more creative, and think more clearly.

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